The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Think divorce is miserable? Try getting one while serving in Congress.

Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) gave her final floor speech on Oct. 31, before resigning amid an ethics investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)
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When you’re in the public eye, it’s nearly impossible to divorce in private.

Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.)'s divorce has spilled into the news pages as she acknowledged an improper relationship that she and her husband had together with a campaign staffer, was accused of having an affair with one of her congressional staffers (which she’s denied) and on Sunday announced she would resign rather than endure an ethics investigation. Hill says her husband, without her consent, released explicit images of her that have been published on conservative and British news sites.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is also going through a divorce while weathering allegations that she’s had an affair with a political consultant. She’s not publicly discussing her personal life, though that doesn’t stop reporters from asking.

And when Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and her husband filed for divorce in January, numerous media outlets broadcast the details in the court documents, in which she claims her husband assaulted her and subjected her to years of emotional abuse. The Iowa court later sealed most of the couple’s divorce records at the Ernsts’ request.

A messy divorce is hard enough to weather when you’re an ordinary person and rumors are spreading as far as the carpool line or the church potluck. It’s even harder if voters and the media (including The Washington Post, let’s be honest) are asking about and reporting on every drip of information.

Hill is one of the few politicians whose divorce has led to revelations that forced them from office. Now she finds herself at the center of a fierce debate about sexism, sexual orientation (she’s bisexual) and revenge porn (sexually explicit photos of someone shared online without their consent).

Yes, she was facing an ethics investigation, but some speculate that if she were more established in Congress — or a man — her career might have survived a nasty split. “Certainly this would have a bigger impact on someone of her demographic than a middle-aged white man,” Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who specializes in sexual privacy violations, told the Lily’s Caroline Kitchener.

There are higher expectations for women in politics than for men, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Women are put on a pedestal, and they’re assumed to be more pure and ethical,” she explained. “Because of that assumption of them being ‘good,’ when they have a failing, the fall from grace is steeper and harder to climb back up.”

Case in point: Hill’s colleague Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) faces federal charges alleging that he’s used campaign funds on extramarital, intimate relationships with five women, including one on his staff. Hunter remains in office (and, for now, married).

Sixty years ago, a divorce plus sex scandal shocked voters more than it does today. When Nelson Rockefeller divorced his wife in 1962 and the following year married a woman who’d volunteered on his gubernatorial campaign, it was widely viewed as costing him the 1964 presidential nomination.

Later, public splits became less of big of a deal. In 1980, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich’s first marriage ended after he had an affair with a campaign volunteer, Marianne Ginther, and he still went on to be speaker of the House. He married Ginther, and 18 years later divorced her and married Callista Bisek, with whom he’d had an affair in the 1990s.

While mayor of New York, Rudolph W. Giuliani announced in a 2000 news conference that he was separating from his second wife, Donna Hanover, and acknowledged he was in a relationship with Judith Nathan. Hanover learned of the split from watching television. Giuliani’s subsequent marriage to Nathan is now ending in acrimonious fashion.

Third time was not the charm: Rudy Giuliani’s latest divorce is bitter, expensive and very public

Mark Sanford’s career survived his 2009 sex scandal. While governor of South Carolina, he disappeared for a few days to visit his mistress, María Belén Chapur, in Argentina, and it nearly got him impeached. He had a very public divorce that caused him to call off his engagement to Chapur. But Sanford went on to the U.S. House, and now he’s challenging Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020.

More recently, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) didn’t fare as well: He retired earlier this year after reports that he’d had several extramarital affairs, and a lewd photo he’d sent to one of his mistresses circulated online.

Oregon’s 5th Congressional District is so marriage-unfriendly that every single member since it was created for the 1982 election has divorced while in office — Portland Monthly has called the trend “the Curse of the Fifth.” But for only one representative did the split seem to have lasting political consequences. When Jim Bunn, a Republican family-values candidate, divorced his wife of 17 years in 1995 and married his chief of staff less than a year later, he was voted out after just one term. According to a 2002 story in the Oregonian, his brothers, supporters and even his wife-to-be had advised against tying the knot with a staffer. “I wasn’t a bright enough person to listen and understand,” Bunn told the publication of his mind-set at the time.

Martha Schrader, the ex-wife of that seat’s current occupant, Rep. Kurt Schrader, doesn’t think the district itself is to blame. Rather “it’s just Congress that’s hard on relationships,” she told Portland Monthly earlier this year, adding: “I’m hopeful when Kurt retires, the next person elected stays married.”

Sanford K. Ain, a divorce attorney in Washington, estimates he’s done about 20 politicians’ divorces. He said the key to keeping a split quiet is to treat your spouse respectfully. If you start off that way, “they’re more likely to reciprocate,” Ain said. “If you roll around in the mud, they’re more likely to meet you there.”

Part of keeping a low profile is not putting many details in any court documents. Omar’s divorce filing, for example, cited only an “irretrievable breakdown” as the reason for the end of her marriage. (She declined a request to speak for this story, and Hill was not made available as of press time.) Anything in a court filing will be in the media shortly, Ain noted, which some people use as leverage. “But both people are embarrassed by inflammatory filings,” Ain cautioned.

As difficult as it is to divorce while in politics, it’s also difficult to find the time and privacy to repair a marriage during grueling campaigns or while working long hours. In his 2016 memoir “The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics,” John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor who’s running for Senate, describes going to great lengths to avoid public speculation about his marriage. When he and his now-ex-wife, Helen Thorpe, went for marriage counseling during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, they would meet with a therapist in the basement of a Quaker meeting house, so as to avoid being spotted in a waiting room.

Hickenlooper and Thorpe eventually separated and then divorced while he was in office, but “we still love each other dearly," he writes. "We still try to do whatever we can to make each other happy.” They live only a block apart, he notes, so as to co-parent more effectively.

The public’s interest in politicians’ divorces and sex scandals is particularly fierce, Ain said, because there are always people in the opposing party who would like to see an opponent compromised. Hill’s situation reminds Walsh of a public spat between Coya Knutson, who in the 1950s was the first woman to represent Minnesota in Congress, and her husband, Andy Knutson. Andy was jealous of his wife’s success and suspicious that she was cheating on him. In 1957, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) wanted to back a different candidate; they approached Andy with a letter for him to sign, asking his wife not to run for reelection. The Fargo Forum published the letter; soon Andy’s plea plus accusations that Coya was having an affair with one of her aides became national news.

“It has always been my belief that an individual’s family life is a personal matter,” Knutson told The Post in 1958. She lost her reelection campaign that year and filed a complaint with a House subcommittee, arguing that she had been the victim of a “malicious conspiracy” involving her husband, the DFL and her opponent’s associates. The committee agreed that her personal life had been exploited and probably contributed to her defeat, but it found no evidence linking her opponent to a conspiracy. Coya and Andy later divorced.

Hill is trying to use the visibility of her divorce for good. In her resignation video to supporters, Hill said she was hurt and angry — and at times appeared to be choking back tears. She vowed to fight against digital exploitation: “I will not let my experience scare off other young women or girls from running for office.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly called Katie Hill the first openly bisexual member of Congress.


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